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Stuff.co.nz, October 21, 2008

He's no alpha male, but Sammy the chimp's a daddy
By Mark Stevens

It has required DNA testing but the paternity of one-year-old baby Beni has now been settled: It's Sammy.

Until recently, the father of Beni – Wellington Zoo's baby chimpanzee – was a mystery. Mum Sally was a looker, and had always been Sammy's favourite, but with that many males in the house, who could be sure?

DNA testing of a hair collected by Zoo veterinarians has now confirmed keeper Cassandra Butler's suspicions. And, despite the initial confusion, it's a love story.

"Sally is the most prized female in the troop, and she's Sammy's favourite female so we were pretty sure Sammy was the father. He's not the alpha male – I guess you'd call him a lover, not a fighter," she said.

Beni turns one tomorrow, in what the zoo is labeling a significant milestone for an endangered species.

Wellington Zoo's chimpanzees are part of the Australasian Species Management Programme. Its breeding programme is carefully managed to secure the genetic diversity of the common chimpanzee.

Butler says Beni is "still very much a baby", but has integrated well with the 12 adults in the troop.

"Beni will wean when he's about three, but has been eating solid food from a few months old."

The baby chimp's favourite food is banana. He knows his own name and loves to play with his friends.

"Sally has been very diplomatic about who she lets approach her baby, a smart move because Beni now has lots of friends and even plays with the alpha male," Butler said.

"Some of the girls are carrying him around as well, younger females who are approaching breeding age. It's great mothering practice for them and Beni enjoys the attention.

"They're a very cohesive group and the family bond is very strong, as it is among chimpanzees in the wild."

A zoo party is planned for Beni on Labour Day, starting at midday, with party games, face-painting and a special chimp talk.

© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2007.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton